Through the eyes of an innocent child, parents can appear invincible.
So it was understandable our family of eight children were somewhat confused when on Aug. 21, 1968, the Soviet army invaded what was then Czechoslovakia. My parents, Czech immigrants, embraced and wept as tanks rumbled through the historic streets of Prague to suppress their motherland’s drive for freedom and democracy.
It was the first time we had seen them together in tears.
An eerie silence haunted the family home while Mom and Dad prayed and sat close by the phone to learn the fate of many relatives still in “the old country.”
It was that horrible event for my siblings old enough to remember and it taught us the precious meaning of freedom — something often taken for granted in countries not chained by the tyrants of oppressive governments.
Today, our Ukrainian neighbours are going through the same hell. Tears of anguish, uncertainty and hope are being shed during prayers for a peaceful resolve to the turmoil in their motherland. More than 100 demonstrators in Ukraine seeking to break ties with Moscow have so far been killed in a passionate drive for freedom.
Central Alberta is home to a close-knit Ukrainian community. Area resident Alex Ivanenko, who immigrated from Ukraine with his parents in 1994, said he hopes those killed in the uprising will sow the seeds to freedom for his people. Ivanenko organized a rally on Sunday at Red Deer City Hall where more than 100 people gathered, weeping and praying in memory of those they consider martyrs in the skirmishes overseas.
Advocate reporter Brenda Kossowan said that among those attending the rally was Father Serhiy Harahuc of Red Deer’s St. Vladimir Ukrainian Catholic Church, who lost a close friend in the uprising. Harahuc learned from his parents and news media that the 20-year-old man from the priest’s home city of Zbarazh was among the first killed in the streets of Kyiv. It’s impossible to comprehend the pain Harahuc must have felt after hearing the news.
Despite the ousting during the uprising of Moscow-backed ex-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych, now in Moscow and charged with mass murder, the road to freedom in Ukraine will likely be paved with tears and blood. If it is in fact achieved.
There are many obstacles on the road to democracy, said Ivanenko’s father Peter. They include fears that efforts will continue to split the country in two, the population being comprised of millions of Russians backing Moscow’s efforts to stifle democracy. Those forces must never be allowed to prevail, said Peter.
The latest developments have raised the fear that the road to freedom could include intervention by Russian troops. With the Sochi Olympics now behind him, and no further reason to appease the world, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday ordered surprise military exercises along the Ukrainian border. And U.S. intelligence reports that up to half a dozen Russian warships have been repositioned near the Ukrainian port city of Sevastapol. The U.S. has urged Putin, named by Forbes Magazine this year as “the most powerful person in the world,” to refrain from action “that could be misinterpreted,” reported The Canadian Press.
The peace-seeking citizens of Ukraine are driven by passion in pursuit of democracy after seemingly endless years of persecution with millions murdered at the hands of iron-fisted rulers.
Just over 80 years ago, Joseph Stalin, then ruler of the Soviet Union, engineered a brutal plan to “cleanse” Ukraine of “radicals” opposed to his views.
Between 1932 and 1933, Stalin’s army deprived the country of food, locking grain bins and prohibiting all food production. In what became known as “Holodomor” — genocide by starvation — upwards of at 14 million Ukrainians starved to death. A 1990s documentary titled After Stalin featured horror stories of survivors, one being a boy making soup out of a human hand to stay alive. It was cut from a family member who had perished earlier. Some historians claim the number of deaths during Holodomor surpassed those of Hitler’s holocaust, but records weren’t kept as accurately as they were during the Nazi bloodshed.
Putin, who bumped U.S. President Barack Obama to second place in the Forbes evaluation of power, is facing his toughest test yet as Russia’s president in addressing the Ukraine conflict. He has his reputation among his followers to protect. But military action could lead to serious repercussions from the Western World and members of the European Union.
The Red Deer gathering on Sunday included at least 80 temporary workers from Ukraine here to fill jobs at Olymel. In a gesture of solidarity, comfort and support, there were some from other countries. Ainur Kabesheva of Kazakhstan brought with her steaming hot shelpek, a pan-fried bread traditionally made in her country for remembrance services. She distributed small pieces, saying the bread represents support for each other.
This humble act of kindness showed our Ukrainian community that it’s not alone during these tumultuous times, and freedom is indeed precious.
Rick Zemanek is a former Advocate editor.